Jewish comedy in television impacts society’s outlook

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By Jared Beinart
For the Mitzpeh
@Jared_Beinart

Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment and Sony Pictures/Wikimedia Commons.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

In attempts to seek appeal among its intended audience, mass media will often misrepresent races and religions with stereotypical character portrayals.

While the modern perception of Judaism is often skewed into comedic, oversimplified caricatures, I have rarely been offended by this trend. As a Jewish person, I’ll sometimes have an easier time relating to a character and the intricacies of the humor once I know we share a membership to the tribe.

Shows like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” both created by University of Maryland alumnus Larry David, often employ the trope of “Jewish humor.”

“Seinfeld” is a self-dubbed “show about nothing” that focuses on the lives of four friends living in New York City. Three of the show’s characters, Jerry Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer and George Costanza (a character based on Larry David) are Jewish.

Rather than overwhelm their audience with reminders of these characters’ heritage and religious background, the discerning use of Jewish humor adds to the experience for both Jewish and non-Jewish viewers. It’s humor made by Jews, Seinfeld and David, about Jews, for Jews, but anyone can appreciate it.

This understated, tasteful formula achieved much. “Seinfeld” exposed millions of Americans to Judaism through humor.

During the show’s run, Jerry Seinfeld was the comedian most associated with Judaism. The show offered him a platform for humorous observation of Jewish culture, food and religious observances.

While “Seinfeld” was able to convey Jewish culture in its comedy, much of the modern media fails to properly portray Judaism.

“Friends,” a popular sitcom during the 90s, featured two Jewish main characters in Ross and Monica Geller.  In almost 10 years on television, the producers of the show never made much of an effort to acknowledge the Jewish identities of these characters. Judaism does not seem to impact their lives all that much in the show. The extent to which these characters observe the religion or even mention their faith is very limited.

This bears the question: should the entertainment industry focus on representation over substance when it comes to Jews in entertainment?

Rather than leave the portrayal of Judaism in the hands of media executives who only care about surface-level diversification, it would be nice to see Jewish actors, directors and executives properly portraying Jewish faith and culture.*

Shows like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” may perpetuate Jewish stereotypes, but at least that Jewish humor is — for the most part — depicting events and culture that I can easily relate to.

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